Writing in 1982, Terence Whitaker published the account of the ghost of a large, white, lop-eared rabbit which used to haunt the area around Crank and Rainford in the days before the latter became a railway junction. It was said to jump out at people walking the roads at night, and hop along beside them; to see it was bad luck, for it meant trouble or even death. Most ghost animals have no tale to explain their presence, but in this case Whitaker was told a quite elaborate one.
According to this, in Stuart times an old woman who lived in the village of Crank was regarded with awe because of her knowledge of herbs and also, it was alleged, of the black arts. She had a granddaughter called Jennie, and Jennie had a pet white rabbit. There was also a man called Pullen who had come to the old woman for a remedy for some wasting disease he suffered from, but, when it proved useless, Pullen had become convinced that she was in fact a witch who was harming, not helping, him. Together with a ruffian named Dick Piers, he broke into the old woman’s cottage one night and stabbed her in the arm as she slept, thinking that drawing blood would break her magic power. They had blacked their faces as disguise. Jennie, hearing her grandmother’s screams, went to help her, with her rabbit in her arms, but then panicked and ran from the house and across the hill, pursued by Pullen and Piers. They lost track of Jennie, but near the crest of the hill the rabbit ran out in front of them from a hedge, and they kicked it to death. Next day, Jennie was found ‘cold and stiff, her feet torn and her head cut where she had fallen’. The grandmother recovered, but left the village.
Then the rabbit’s ghost began to manifest itself. It showed itself first to Piers, troubling his conscience so much that he wrote a confession and then killed himself by jumping into a quarry. Then Pullen saw it too, one night when he was passing the old woman’s abandoned cottage; terrified, he fled towards his home, but it kept up with him and drove him out into the open fields where he was found next day, suffering from exhaustion and exposure. He died a few days later.
Some of Whitaker’s informants insisted that, railway or no railway, the white rabbit was still occasionally seen on dark nights, and always meant misfortune. The story as he heard it is rather modern in sentiment and suffers from a central implausibility – would a girl going to her grandmother’s help in the middle of the night bring her pet rabbit? Yet one can guess at traces of an underlying older and authentically folkloric plot, since Jennie’s death follows so quickly after that of the rabbit: maybe the rabbit originally was Jennie, just as so many witches in local legends take the form of hares, and are pursued and wounded in that form.
See also THETFORD, Norfolk.